When U.S. and European airlines quickly canceled flights to Israel Tuesday, they showed both a skittishness and a new sense of urgency in dealing with global trouble spots following last week's downing of a passenger plane over Ukraine.
Delta Air Lines turned around one of its jets midflight and indefinitely canceled all future flights between the U.S. and Israel after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport. Other U.S. airlines quickly took similar action, and counterparts in Europe and Canada followed within hours, despite protests from the Israeli government. Israeli airline El Al maintained its regular flight schedule.
The airlines were out ahead of aviation regulators in stopping service. The Federal Aviation Administration imposed a 24-hour ban on flights to Israel after the U.S. airlines acted. Germany's Lufthansa, Italian airline Alitalia and Air France all acted before the European Aviation Safety Agency issued an advisory.
How long the cessation of flights will last is unclear. U.S. airlines now must wait for the FAA, which said it will provide updated guidance by midday Wednesday.
Aviation and legal experts said that airlines are now taking risk assessment into their own hands, both for the safety of passengers and to avoid claims of negligence, following last week's Malaysia Airlines disaster.
"Most airlines have security departments that try to evaluate those sorts of risk," said William Waldock, a professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "Some do it better than others, but I would expect that everyone is on a very heightened sense of alert right now."
Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, said airlines might be more proactive about avoid hot spot, although he noted that there a very few areas where non-government militaries have weapons sophisticated enough to shoot down a plane.
Western governments have accused pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with a surface-to-air missile while it was flying at 33,000 feet. Some experts have second-guessed the airline's decision to fly over the area. But Malaysian officials have countered that the plane's path from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was approved by international regulators.
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